A selection of the best from recent issues of the Philosopher


Heavenly spheres Cells to Civilisations:
The Principles of Change That Shape Life

The Philosopher's verdict: a disinterested duty
Cells to Civilisations: The Principles of Change That Shape Life 
by Enrico Coen
ISBN-0691149674 Publisher: Princeton University Press (2012)
Pages: 360,  £19.95

The novelty behind this book is tempting: Enrico Coen promises to present key debates in the area of evolutionary and biological science by reference to fine art. For example, the sixth century Chinese artist, Xie He identified six ingredients for painting. these are vitality, brushwork, natural form, colour, composition and copying.  A picture  by Mu Chi called Persimmons (which look a bit like tomatoes) illustrates the idea. Coen's suggestion is that the world around us can similarly be both understood and appreciated by reduction to certain key elements, seven ingredients that define 'life's creative recipe'.

Coen argues that 'evolution, development, learning and culture form a grand cycle, a series of interrelated transformations thought which life's creative recipe comes to look back on itself'. And he notes that one unintended effect of evolutionary science's successful bid to remove the guiding hand of a heavenly creator, is that creativity itself has become disconnected from the language of natural processes. Coen hopes instead to show how creativity is a part of the natural world.

To my mind, appreciating the formal similarities between our creative acts and other living processes gives us a richer  perspective on all life and a more appropriate view of our place within it. It does not diminish the wonder of human creativity, but places it in a broader biological context.

The strength and the weakness of this novel approach is that within it there is a delicate collection of original and intriguing comparisons to art and culture, struggling to survive alongside a thick and suffocating mass of technical and fatiguing scientific detail.

At least Coen gives a speedy 'thumbs-down' to the notion of the 'cultural meme' put about by Dawkins (though he does not mention him by name). This version of cultural transmission, Coen says, is little more than tautological, leading to confusion.

Put another way, this is a book with a very grand purpose and ambitious project. How successful is it? Alas, I think, not so successful. Coen is extremely knowledgeable and impressively precise - but rather less skilled at presenting a clear line of argument. What we end up with are a series of lectures, in which details is piled upon detail, a journey conducted in ever-decreasing circles, at the end of which the destination seems just as remote.

The book starts promisingly enough though. In the discussion of the ingredient 'copying'. Coen explains how 'reproduction and resampling' can have unexpected effects. Consider a kind of lottery machine holding a mixture of black and white balls.

Let us consider a situation where there is no difference in the properties of black and white balls. That is, they compete equally well for a place in the sample (much like human competition with many candidates of equal ability competing for a limited number of places). If we start with black and white balls in equal numbers, you might expect that the proportion would remain roughly the same over many generations. Surprisingly, however after about one hundred generations, the population will most likely contain only black or only white balls.

The explanation is mathematical in nature: a chance increase in one colour is reinforced though reproduction, and if there is a limit on total numbers inevitably one colour triumphs over the others. It is not the survival of the fittest but the logic of resampling. 'Fitness', as in natural selection, is correctly understood as the introduction of a bias into the selection process.

Another thought-provoking insight is that co-operation is the key to evolution, rather than competition., in the sense that at all levels, from the elements that make up the DNA, to amino acids, and then proteins, is not about the change in isolation, but the effect of that change on the relationship with others needed to form the whole. '

The notion of natural selection acting on a base or gene in isolation makes little sense because bases and genes only exert their effects by inter-reacting with multiple components.

(Unconvincingly, though, Coen adds 'This is similar to the colours that interact at many levels in Cézanne's painting'.)

The thing to remember about co-operation is that without it there would be no individuals and no genes for natural selection to act on. Competition and co-operation are two sides of the same coin. 'Competition leads to co-operative spatial units and these in turn provide the assemblies that drive further competition. This continual feedback between Cupertino and competition is a fundamental feature of evolution by natural selec
tion, yet it is often overlooked.' Similarly, too much variation is a problem for evolution as it washes out changes before they have had a chance to establish themselves. 'Without variation, nothing would change, and without persistence, anything that did change would not last.'

This all underlines how assumptions frame the evolution debate. Take the human genome. Researchers assumed it must be far more complex than the genomes of other creatures, so first estimates stated it consisted of about 70 000 genes. But as knowledge accumulated, the number had to be revised steadily downwards. Recent estimates put it at about 25 000 which is about the same as a small weed (called Arabidopsis). 'But even 25 000 genes contain far more possibilities than we can conceive of. Life is interesting because of the enormous combinatorial richness of organisms and their environments.' A better way of looking at it is to see the human species as a cloud of points clustered together in a vast cloud of genetic space. Evolution is successful because the range of adaptation is so vast. For example, bats learned to fly despite having taken an evolutionary path that ruled out feathers (by extending the skin between long, thin fingers).

Bats are an example of how evolution is backward-looking as well as forward-looking. Another example Coen offers is of the Rubisco protein, used by plants for photosynthesis, and likely the most abundant protein on Earth. That's a success which belies the fact that about one third of the time it waste's plants energies by trying to fix oxygen instead of carbon dioxide. But then it  evolved at a time when earth's atmosphere contained little or now oxygen. The point is, natural selection does not necessarily drive the weakest to the wall - creative solutions can remedy earlier errors.


Never mind what The Philosopher says -
Take me to the bookshop!
Reviewed by Martin Cohen